The American mind is probably the most affected by self-confidence than any other. In any group of people who were asked to create a list of social norms, including beliefs about a particular social custom or saying, in essence, “Okay, you’ve done a pretty good job of keeping this in line,” the self-confident group was the one that came closest to unanimity on a number of salient points.
Even our own personality. For example, it’s no secret that people who score above the status quo on many measures are more likely to know how to deal with situations that lack solutions — just think about how self-confident graduates seem to have much more success in their job markets. Nor is it surprising that self-confidence is related to educational attainment, especially given the sluggishness of scientific research. Self-confidence, as measured, by indicators like test scores may well be an important causal factor.
What is surprising, then, is that self-confidence has declined so sharply in recent years, despite the rise of online social networks.
The trend over the past 15 years has been to persuade people that they’re always right. If you’re on the internet you don’t even have to know that other people’s perspectives have the potential to change. You just have to feel that you’re being heard, and having your views affirmed, and if those people’s perspectives change, well, that can only be good. In a nutshell, this is what social media is doing, using a cheap and widely available trick, it works on the part of people that feels most vulnerable, not the part that is most appealing.
But social media is a rather blunt instrument, with little ability to fine-tune the effect of a few bars on the baritone. You don’t really know until people write down their reviews of your shmear: We still don’t know how seriously consumers take the reviews that auto-fill on the Uber app, or the litmus test of membership-based reviews on Amazon, or the “emotional intelligence” reviews from myriad other places. So self-confidence tends to be profoundly self-reinforcing: Once people spend more time on social media, the more they think they’re great at the stuff. And the more great they think they are, the more they press the self-confidence button, forcing themselves to keep making great new posts.
Social media causes a widespread decline in self-confidence, which is apparently expressed in a very deep and disparate pattern. Self-confidence may be correlated with wealth and social hierarchies. Or it may be correlated with demographics. Or it may be correlated with more self-referential performance — less satisfaction with the work we do and more dissatisfaction with not having done better.
A weirdly free-flowing site like Facebook serves only one purpose, and I’m pretty sure that that purpose is to make the self-absorbed feel good. It’s a powerful motivator for making more posts, which can lead to greater self-referential performance.
But here’s the question: Are these feelings of self-confidence really a good thing? Or has social media, to some extent, created an illusion of ability? A much more effective motivator would be to promote the pleasure of the good, as opposed to making people feel good by checking in on their performance. This has obvious drawbacks, in that it would presumably require people to visit Facebook regularly to feel good about things, not just flip through its feed once every few hours. And it might foster compulsive reporting.
But the principle is sound: Social media isn’t necessary for people to feel that they’re doing well. But it may lead them to feel that they’re failing miserably. And here’s where social media falls short because people don’t check Facebook and feel better about their life. They just check Facebook and feel like something’s missing — there is a void between the self-confident kid on Facebook and the chill neighbor who “unfriended” her whole family on Facebook. This dearth of content leads to an overwhelming urge to fill the void — a desire to make post after post, e-mail after e-mail, tweet after tweet. The ideal response to this feeling of anger is to clarify what’s important in the world, not to insist that everybody else loves it just as much as you do.
Yet the standard response is to increase what amounts to cognitive dissonance — making sure that you’re never in conflict with anything. That would be fine if one could show that things were improving. But without a realizable goal, you just make things worse.
Some readers ask to have columns quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle. Is that always an option? My personal preference is that it never is. But I also have more than a passing interest in the Chronicle and feel that it is important for the people who write the newspaper to reflect the views of most of their readership, who have the most direct and immediate access to the reporters and editors who work for the paper. Thus, if a paper editor suggests something in a column that concerns me, I try to persuade him that this ought to be in print and my point then becomes clear.
In this respect, I have problems with both The New York Times and Vox. In The Times column that you quoted, Christine Giesler wrote that “We need to stop seeing fake news on social media as equivalent to real news.” But hers is a classic case of either-or thinking: what was fake news compared to what is real news? An honest view of the differences would be that some fake news is as real as real news. In some cases, fake news is toxic; in some cases, it is healthy and helps to restore our senses to normal levels. The alternative view, adopted by Giesler, is a metaphorical one. What’s real and what’s fake are things with names and brands. They do not carry themselves as though they are real.
Similarly, in Vox, Dara Lind argued that the price of social media is shortsighted or worse. “In 2014, social media didn’t exist,” she wrote. “It was around that time, we were all using our email addresses and mailing addresses, calling into old-fashioned radio shows, and talking with people on the phone.” The point, she insisted, was that social media was now indispensable to good thinking, from reading too many e-books to making decisions about where to shop and to paying attention to it. We should have pressed social media companies to fix the problems they’ve created, but did not.
This view, coming from someone who has pioneered digital journalism in America, has both admirable and abominable potential consequences. First, it seems to suggest that technology is not a bad thing — in fact, it can be a good thing, and that we should do whatever we can to create new ways to use it. The implication is that no innovation is bad, and no problem a solution. (Its attendant irony, of course, is that Giesler writes her column for the Times, not Verge, where she is managing editor or Vox, but it is not explicitly stated.)
There is a grain of truth in this argument — for one thing, I know that the future of news is digital. But the reason social media has been so powerful is that it provides a particular format of communication with a uniquely appealing character. A person might be challenged by The New York Times’ reporting; he might still want to click on Facebook and hear a cellphone conversation about it. When I think about this, I miss my uncle who lives across the country, the one who took the automobile and horse and buggy. It was just enough.
And of course, part of why social media is so important is because it enables us to talk and share experiences in a way that makes us feel good. I can’t imagine that I would have met someone I like to drink beer within social media, and that’s because no social media site has ever been designed to facilitate a continuous flow of entertaining anecdotes and disses. Having no control over Facebook, I’m overwhelmed every time my family and friends post something I don’t agree with. Yet, as I’ve argued before, it is hard to imagine that I wouldn’t enjoy chatting with someone who has something I find a source of pleasure.
Technology can be an important way of leveling the playing field. For better or worse, social media has brought us closer together. And it also increases trust, because it is widely believed that conversations about other people’s lives can be trusted. But social media can, I fear, be a serious hindrance to self-confidence. That fact raises some tricky questions: are we prepared to cede to our social media more of the authority that we’ve long exercised over our own lives? When we cede authority, are we conceding our right to be the rulers?
In my experience, the answer is no, even on matters where social media seems like a useful tool. I wish that social media were not so powerful, but I recognize that it is. And I do see some cases where it makes people more informed than they otherwise would be, and I have been spending much of my time on social media. But the biggest problem is that it is so one-sided.